Welcoming the Stranger, Part II

20160207_095425Tonight I have the privilege of speaking with some Lay Readers on the topic of Welcoming Children and Families.

I’ve put together a PowerPoint, which I thought I’d share with all of you.

The images of prayer spaces without captions are taken from this blog – you can find more details about them in older posts; just click on the “Pray and Play” tag at the bottom of this post to get all the related ones.

Welcoming Families (PowerPoint – 15 MB, download it on a proper computer over wireless not data!) Please also note – the big black rectangle on the 10th slide is a video – hover over it to see the “PLAY” command appear.

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Pray and Play

Another wonderful Pray and Play corner, from St. Andrew’s, Bedford. Here’s what Children and Young People’s Activities Coordinator Becky has to say about it:

“There are some of the Lent calendars and some other worksheets/colouring and plain paper for the children to let their imaginations flow. Plus there are some stickers (they always love having stickers so I try to put some out every now and then, I have used some I got from The Word bookshop but the current ones are from Baker Ross with the words of faith).

“The activity bags are Bible story bags, like story bags you get in schools but each is Bible story. They contain a book of the story, some toys that can be used to act out the story and some colouring/worksheets relating to the story as well as a pencil case with colours, etc. I think the current stories in the bags are Jonah and the whale, that has a small plastic doll/figure, a whale toy and I think a boat, there is Moses in the bullrushes, with a small baby doll and basket, Daniel and the lion’s den, with a small doll/figure and small toy lions, David and Goliath, with a large figure (actually one of my sons old wrestling figures but with a tunic on!) and a small figure with a sling shot (that is actually one of the knee pads the wrestling figure used to wear!). I try to update them every now and then with different stories.

“I am also working on making I-spy treasure sensory bag toys with Bible themes (Google search I-spy treasure bags and look on images and you get the idea), these are Autism fidget toys but I think will work well with others too. I currently have collected everything I need to make Holy Week themed ones and one of the lovely ladies at our church is going to sew them for me. I will then work on other Bible stories/Christian symbols/Christmas ones for the rest of the year.”

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Let the children come to me.

When was the last time you went someplace that intimidated you?

Maybe it was a party where you didn’t know anyone except the host.

Maybe you were taking a toddler to a restaurant or a family wedding.

Maybe you were starting a course, and had to navigate a classroom and classmates for the first time in a while.

Whatever it was, can you remember how it felt to walk in? Can you remember some of the questions that went through your head?

What if nobody talks to me? What if I do something wrong, and obviously wrong, and everyone can see I don’t belong? What if my kid doesn’t behave? What if they need the toilet? Where will I put the pram? Will I know where to sit? Are there unspoken rules that I won’t know?

That’s what’s going through the minds of many young families as they come to church.  Just think of it – the service might be new and unfamiliar, the people are strangers, the atmosphere might be hushed and reverent (and they have a toddler!), and yet their desire to be a part of it, and for their child to know Jesus, is strong enough for them to brave crossing the threshold into your building.

And what happens next?

Do they find a place that puts their fears to rest? Or do they find a place that extinguishes whatever spark brought them there in the first place?

While no church is going to be the right fit for every family that visits once, there are some things you can do to help make new families feel welcome from the start.

  1. Have somebody in your welcome team every week whose job it is specifically to be there for children and families. They should know, by name, the children who come regularly, and greet them. They should know where the nappy changing facilities are, where Sunday School meets and when it starts (if you have Sunday School) and be able to inform parents of any special provision you have for kids – worship bags, a Pray and Play corner, etc.
  2. Have space available in the church for small children to move around. A toddler stuck in a pew will wiggle and make noise and it’s likely that without intervention, this will escalate to a point where the child will need to be taken out. This means the parent will miss part of the service AND feel self-conscious about their child’s behaviour. If you have a children’s corner in the church, parents can move there at the start of the cycle, and nip the escalation in the bud. Ideally, the children’s corner should have a sightline to the altar, and should be filled with spiritually imaginative toys, not secular ones. But if you have no money and all you have are Thomas the Tank Engine toys, start with that – it’s definitely better than nothing!
  3. Many parishioners who seem unwelcoming to children fit into one of two categories. Either there are pastoral reasons why the presence of young children is upsetting (for example, someone who desperately wanted grandchildren and is coming to terms with not having them) or they’re worried that the presence of children and families means the church is going to lose something they value and love, and that is important to them, spiritually (e.g. a strong choral music tradition, a sense of peace and tranquility). When you receive a complaint about the children “making noise,” try to find out what that parishioner is really saying, and minister to that. It may at times be necessary, however, to address the common unconscious belief that many people have – including parents – that children are, primarily, “visitors at an adult event,” who are welcome “as long as they behave.” This thinking causes some parishioners to resent every noticeable sign of the presence of children as taking away from “my” worship experience, and it also has the effect, when parents internalise it, of causing them to focus on getting their child to “behave” rather than helping them actually engage in worship.  This article on Whispering in Church is a brilliant starting point for helping parents engage children in worship rather than just try to get them to be quiet.
  4. Try and make sure that new families who stay after church for coffee talk to someone other than the vicar.  Research from the Christenings Project has shown that meeting even one parishioner other than the vicar significantly increases the chances of a family staying involved with the church. Maybe there are one or two people in your church who are very good at small talk and networking, and they can be unofficially “on duty” to welcome new people, find out a bit about them, and introduce them around.
  5. Does your church speak a different language?  Do you talk, during worship, about the chancel, the narthex, the legilium, the absolution, the sacrament, the Gospel, and the offertory without some indication, for newcomers, of what that all means?  When you say, “talk to Jo for tickets to our quiz evening,” does Jo stand up and wave, or is everyone expected to know who she is?  How user-friendly are your service sheets?  If aliens crash-landed into your service, would they leave knowing something about why you worship as you do and what it all means?  In other words – is the liturgy made for man, not man for the liturgy?
  6. And finally, but perhaps most importantly: what is the mood? Is your church confident in who they are, open to newcomers without feeling threatened by the possible changes they will bring, or are they closed-in and defensive?  If it’s the latter, how can you begin to change that culture?

Pray and Play 2

A few more images of great children’s areas have come through.  If you’d like me to feature yours, email pictures or links to cme@stalbans.anglican.org

This one shows an area focused on providing different activities for children to do at different times in the service.  This type of idea might need an adult helper, or clear notes for parents.  This corner supports the “gathering” time at the start of the service – many different items made of different pieces that can be put together.

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There are lots of seasonal ideas for children’s areas. This one is set up for Advent and Christmas (the gathering area above can be seen just at the right):

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While many children’s areas are specifically designed for Under-5s, there are ways of providing opportunities for older children as well.  Here are a few.  For the first activity, a book of the story is available for children who don’t know the story:

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Pray and Play

Many churches have children’s corners.  It’s hard for little ones to sit still for the whole of a 1-hour service, or to come back in from a Sunday School session where they were allowed to move and play, and suddenly be expected to sit quietly in a pew.

This can mean children get restless and fussy, and parents end up taking them out. Parents feel embarrassed, both parents and children miss out on the service, and worship can get disrupted by a large-scale tantrum.  Not good.  By providing a children’s corner, where parents can take their children at the first sign of restlessness, this escalation can be largely prevented.  (Though kids will sometimes kick off regardless – it helps if it’s a vicar or churchwarden’s kid, so other parents feel more relaxed about their own.)

It’s easy to make the children’s corner just an ordinary secular playspace, but with a slight change in mindset, this can actually be turned into an opportunity for developing children’s spirituality.

Here’s one I made earlier …  the “Pray and Play” space at St. George’s Church, Campden Hill, London. Each basket is themed.  We have Baptism, Christmas, and Easter, as well as a Noah’s Ark with animals, a book corner, and a small toy altar with liturgical items and a toy church.

The focus is both on the Christian STORY and on Christian WORSHIP.

You can see how the colour of the cloth on the altar shows the liturgical year (except for when we lost our cloths and had all blue for a while while we replaced them!), and how extra items are sometimes added at festivals.

There’s a poster of the Good Shepherd on the wall, and the altar is visible from the Pray and Play area, so children and their adults can still feel connected to the worship.

The treasure boxes contain items similar to the Spiritual Child Network’s liturgy boxes.

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This one was used as a “Meditation Tent” in a Holiday Club in Nottinghamshire, and therefore can be more of a roped-off space than one used during corporate worship. This allows for fantastic creativity in terms of lighting and the overall atmosphere of the space.  Note the sign, which reads, “slip off your shoes and lay down your phone, for you are entering sacred ground.”  This one would work really well for older children and teens.

You can see more of the Meditation Tent here.

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The rug here really reflects a lot of Biblical landscapes (they’re from IKEA).  Note the pillow on top of the purple cushions – it has a heart and hands, which is great for cuddling, and which echoes the imagery of God used in the Beulah Land storytelling sets.  The table and chairs provide space for creative work – make sure you provide materials allowing for open-ended creation and not just colouring sheets.  The coat hanger features Bible-based story sacks, with storybooks and toys connected to that story.  Also note the vicar doll!  The child is playing with a wooden ark, just visible to the right of her.

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pray-and-play10This was a special installation for Pentecost.  Its creator says, “in MY head the doll’s house was meant to be the upper room in this case, but with children it could become anyyhing in their heads! It’s also been house-with-stable for Christmas, wedding feast house for water into wine, anyone’s house when we talked about hospitality and sharing things in common…quite versatile!”

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The image below shows how baskets can be used to encourage play based around worship as well as stories.  The coloured ribbons can be changed according to the season of the year.  For more ideas on children’s area, see the Spiritual Child Network’s page on them.  (Wooden egg cups make very good play chalices, by the way!)

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I’m getting lots of pictures sent through with many more ideas, so keep checking back for more!

In the meantime, if you’re thinking of setting up a Pray and Play area in your church, and you’d like some help – either in what to include or how to do it without scaring your congregation and starting World War III, do get in touch via cme@stalbans.anglican.org or on our Facebook page!